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August 02, 2023

How the Phillies can still improve after the trade deadline

The Phillies can get better in these five ways over the season's last two months.

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Phillies-Aaron-Nola_080223_USAT Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports

Aaron Nola could benefit from the Phillies' moves at the trade deadline.

There are no more trade rumors. There is no more help on the way. 

Aside from some kind of remarkable return to action this fall for Rhys Hoskins and his torn ACL, the Phillies as constructed will be the team that fights for a playoff spot and a return to the World Series.

Adding starter Michael Lorenzen and bench bat Rodolfo Castro will help, but it's up to the superstars and youngsters currently on the roster to perform and make good on one of the four highest payrolls in baseball.

The good news is, with 55 games to go and a slight edge in the NL Wild Card race, the team can still get better down the stretch. Here are five reasons for optimism:

A six-man rotation

The Phils made it clear that after acquiring Lorenzen — who will make his debut Thursday — that they will not be replacing surging Cristopher Sánchez in the rotation. Instead, they'll simply expand it to six starting pitchers. 

There is some logic here. First, Aaron Nola has gigantic splits between pitching on four and five days of rest. And second, the team lost the World Series in large part due to their lack of pitching depth and the excess of innings their top starters accumulated over a long regular season and postseason. This, plus some flexibility with roles within the rotation and pen, makes the move a smart one. Here's more on the tactic, from The Athletic's Matt Gelb:

Nola has a career 4.32 ERA on regular (four days’) rest and a 3.17 ERA on five days’ rest. Zack Wheeler and Taijuan Walker don’t have as drastic splits with added rest.

“Their numbers are better with the extra day, five days’ rest,” manager Rob Thomson said. “We’re just fortunate to be in this long run here that we can do that.”

Sánchez and Lorenzen are nearing career-highs in innings. One of them could become a reliever down the stretch; the Phillies did not commit to a six-man rotation beyond mid-August.

Lorenzen was a reliever from 2016 through 2021, and that’s the role he could fill should the Phillies reach the postseason. [The Athletic]

A healthy bullpen

Philadelphia has had a lot of minor injuries in the bullpen and nearly no one has been immune. Seranthony Domínguez is finally back and looking like himself, earning a big save against the Marlins Wednesday. José Alvarado, the ace lefty reliever on the squad, is currently working to return from the injured list as well.

There has been flux at the end of the pen, and there have been shifting roles and performance levels from relatively unknown arms like Jeff Hoffman and Andrew Vasquez. But the talent is there. The bullpen has the 8th-best ERA in the entire majors and the third-best in the NL with a 3.73 mark. They have one of the best strikeout rates in the league whilst throwing the fifth fewest innings in relief in total. And they have done all of this despite surrendering one of the worst batting averages on balls in play in MLB, a .300 average against.

All of this is to say that the Phillies bullpen is an underrated strength, and a healthy staff of arms could carry them to glory this fall.

Power should return

The Phillies have hit 114 home runs this season through 107 games. That's not good. Their ballpark is hitter-friendly and they have power bats up and down the lineup. Bryce Harper, for example, has just five homers in 74 games and only Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber have 15 or more. Seven — yes, seven – Atlanta hitters have 15 home runs or more right now.

The biggest complaint Phillies fans will have about the front office's work at the trade deadline is their lack of adding a power bat. There is a sample-size slant to any baseball equation. The ballpark and the track record of the hitters who play there suggest there could be an uptick in power numbers with a ton of home games ahead on the schedule. 

There is also an extreme solo home run bias. The Phillies have hit 71 of their 114 homers with nobody on base — just over 62%. In contrast, the Braves lead the majors with 203 home runs, and 104 of them were solo shots, which is 51%. Philly has just 43 multi-run homers, to the Braves' 99. Even the lowly Mets outpace the Phillies with 53 of them. Will the rule of large numbers bring the power back in South Philly?

They should start to hit with men on base

Completely apropos to their lack of power is their lack of hitting in the clutch. There is a mental element to hitting with runners in scoring position to be sure, but there is also a luck element and a large numbers rule influence in play here.

Here's a look at how Phillies hitters fare with runners in scoring position:

CategoryStatNL Rank
BA w/ RISP.2549th
RBI with RISP31510th
BA w/ 2 out, RISP.23211th
BA in 7-9th inning.2409th

Of 15 NL teams — with six of them making the postseason – obviously, those numbers are troubling. It's remarkable to look at the success this team has had without being able to hit in key spots.

Alec Bohm is the only Phillies hitter who has started more than 12 games to hit .300-plus with runners in scoring position. J.T. Realmuto is hitting .195 (in 105 PAs), Kyle Schwarber hits .207 (in 113 PAs) and Bryce Harper .232 (in 84 PAs). Everyone has seen those three superstars come through in extremely clutch spots multiple times. Perhaps they'll start to shine brighter when the pressure mounts more.

They have a weak schedule

The Phils control their own destiny, holding a Wild Card spot right now and playing the fifth easiest remaining schedule in the NL down the stretch. They'll face some pretty bad opponents that they can run the score up on, like the Royals this coming weekend and the Mets and Nationals a combined 14 times.

They'll play 32 of their final 55 games at home, which is a real edge for a team that has gone 28-20 at home (they are 30-29 away). August could be a month that sees them create some space in the playoff race. They have 19 home games this month. 

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